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Free-speech advocates drop suit as UMass rescinds rally policy

  • University of Massachusetts sophomore Mica Reel addresses about 160 people gathered for a UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign rally at the Student Union in Amherst in April 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Emily Johnson addresses a Survivor's Bill of Rights rally outside the UMass Student Union in December 2015. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2018

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts trustees and a student activist group that had sued the university over its policy on speeches and rallies on campus have settled their differences.

The campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, a nationwide libertarian group, and Nicholas Consolini, a UMass undergraduate, on Monday withdrew their lawsuit after the trustees rescinded the policy as part of a preliminary settlement, according to the plaintiffs’ legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in January in U.S. District Court, arguing that a university policy restricting the time and place rallies could take place limited students’ free speech and violated their First Amendment rights.

The policy required “outdoor speeches and rallies during class hours” to be held between noon and 1 p.m. in an area on the west side of the Student Union building.

UMass spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said there would be no new policy to replace the old one. The board rescinded the policy at its June 20 meeting.

Advocates for the plaintiffs praised the decision.

“The only permission slip students need to speak on campus is the First Amendment,” said Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Caleb Dalton. “UMass Amherst made the right move by eliminating this unconstitutional limit on student speech.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom is a conservative Christian group based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The lawsuit alleged that because the policy did not define “speech” or “rally,” it impeded the plaintiffs from hosting speeches and rallies in publicly accessible open areas of campus outside the designated speech zone, and made them subject to sanctions if they did so, a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The lack of definition meant that university officials had discretion over the policy, with which they could “discriminate based on a student group’s viewpoint,” according to a statement by the ADF.

The lawsuit claimed that Young Americans for Liberty and Consolini wanted to host speeches and rallies outside the speech zone but felt that the university’s policy subjected them to sanctions if they did so, such as expulsion, thus chilling their wish to engage in expression on campus.

According to Dettloff, the rescinded policy was put into place nearly 30 years ago, which had stated that “protests or rallies using electrically amplified sound (microphones and speakers) can occur from 12 to 1 p.m. on the west side of the Student Union Building and that they cannot obstruct the free flow of traffic into the building.”

She said the policy was meant to limit disruption to classes due to amplified sound.

“The board of trustees agreed to rescind the policy, since it is rarely, if ever, enforced and could be misinterpreted as a restriction on free speech,” Dettloff said.

Named in the lawsuit were UMass President Marty Meehan, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life at UMass-Amherst, as well as the members of the board of trustees.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.